The demand for mental health services in this country has been rising quickly. The Mental Health Task Force Five Year Forward View, published in 2016, stated that one in four adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year and identified a growth in need that far outstripped available services. As a result of years of chronic underinvestment, the Forward View reported 75% of people with mental health problems were receiving no support and estimated the economic and social cost of poor mental health to be around £105 billion in England. It identified the need for an additional £1bn investment, and highlighted the importance of prevention and access to high quality care to support recovery.
Although important steps have been taken to address these issues, a number of recent surveys show that despite improvements in funding and provision, a high level of need remains unmet. The Care Quality Commission’s Community Mental Health Survey 2019 identifies areas for continuing improvement. 58% of respondents reported not seeing mental health services often enough to meet their needs, 43% had sufficient time to discuss their needs and treatment. Over half had insufficient information about accessing support from people experiencing similar mental health needs.
The NHS Annual Report 2018-19 reported 1.6 million referrals to talking therapies, an increase of 11.4% from the previous year. Of these, 1.09 million started treatment. The average length was 6.9 sessions and the majority included a mixture of guided self-help sessions and one to one contact. 582,556 completed their course and 52% of those referred to treatment moved to recovery.
These reports show although there are improvements to services, with some growth in the range and scale of therapies available, there remains a high level of unmet need and a lack of sustained support. Many people are still not accessing services quickly or at all and significant numbers struggle to recover.
Impact of Covid19
The current provision will be even more stretched by the impact of Covid19. The wave of mental health issues arising from lockdown measures and general anxiety induced by the pandemic and economic crisis will be significant. Telephone helplines run by organisations such as MIND and SANE are reporting a significant increase in demand from people with increased anxiety and depression.
The range of support services now offered by charities will be essential to improving peoples’ wellbeing. PeerTalk groups have a proven track record of responding to individuals’ needs to talk to others with similar experiences and to receive peer support and encouragement.
The importance of peer support and the therapeutic value of being listened to and understood has been reported in many studies. The Five Year Forward View identifies social interactions and positive relationships as crucial aspects of good mental health. Many respondents to the survey reported social isolation and a lack of community support, and a need for information and skills to manage their own mental health.
Local surveys undertaken by Healthwatch in England in 2018 identified concerns over a lack of ongoing support. A number of respondents worried what would happen to them when their 6 or 8 sessions of therapy ended. Mental health problems do not suddenly ‘end’. Improving mental and emotional wellbeing is unpredictable and prone to setbacks. Continuing support is important in sustaining positive progress. One of the key messages was people with mental health problems want to be listened to and understood as individuals.
Value of PeerTalk
PeerTalk helps to fulfil these needs, providing a safe and welcoming space to talk about problems and to share common experiences. The PeerTalk sessions are weekly and open to all. There is no requirement for a GP or other referral and no pressure on anyone to attend. The relaxed and unthreatening nature of the groups encourage continued attendance. Regular weekly sessions meet the need for social interaction and ongoing support within the community. PeerTalk groups focus not just on sharing experiences, but on positive suggestions for improving mood and dealing with anxiety. That these suggestions come from others in the same position, gives them additional power and validity. There is clear evidence of significant improvement in the mood of many participants, with group members providing strong verbal feedback on how the support of the group has helped them.
The importance of this type of community support is recognised in the NHS Community Mental Health Framework for Adults published in 2019. A plan for an integrated approach to future mental health needs, it takes a holistic view of an individual’s needs and widens the scope of provision to include physical health and social and community support as well as psychological therapies. The stress is on support, care and treatment in the community with agencies working together at local level to strengthen links and provide joined up support. Peer support is identified as one of the strands in this approach, and PeerTalk is uniquely well placed to meet growing demand for this type of provision.